AIIC Honorary President Christopher Thiéry reflects on the current Covid-19 crisis
Uroš Peterc, President of AIIC, asked me a week ago if I had some thoughts which might prove useful for younger colleagues, as I had been around for longer than most members. Had I ever known a situation similar to the present crisis?
The question has been on my mind ever since, but I doubt whether anything I could say would be at all original or useful. The Great Plague and the Spanish Flu episodes were before my time… There is an analogy, of course, with World War II, which started three months before my 12th birthday, in that it impacted literally everyone’s lives in the countries at war, like today. The economy did not, however, come to a grinding halt, far from it: in England it switched to a throbbing wartime economy, and like all schools in London the French Lycée, where I did all my schooling, was evacuated, first to Cambridge, then to the Lake District. The timescale was also very different: when things were unavailable in shops, it was often ‘for the duration’, and no one knew how long that would be. Not to mention the horrors of battle and the millions of casualties. Nor were we told to stay at home – although the Jews in hiding had no option.
The enormous difference, however, is that wars are man-made disasters. The enemies are human beings like ourselves – and in the case of civil or religious wars, often of our own kith and kin, even. And history seems mainly to consist of battles won or lost. That such should be the case is surely an insult to human intelligence. We all like watching military parades, and yet the ability to march in time is not one of the major achievements of the human mind – except if you look at it as a successful effort to act in harmony with others. But whatever way you look at it, devoting so much inventiveness, so much courage to the art of killing as many people as possible, or having to protect oneself from being killed by other human beings, is a sad reflection on our priorities.
But this has nothing to do with Covid-19, which is not, on the face of it, a man-made disaster – although our mismanagement of the planet may have something to do with it. At all events, we are not being attacked by other human beings, but by a mysterious entity, a virus. I have always felt that if one day the the powers that rule the Universe decided that the time had come for mankind to be eliminated, a full-scale virus attack would be the most expedient procedure. And after all, if we reckon in terms of millions of years, the timescale of the Universe, it would be very surprising if this did not happen one day. Who would grieve, apart from us?
What is happening now is that people are perhaps realising (a) that we should perhaps be more careful about the way we manage our beautiful planet’s resources and (b) that the extinction of the human race is not entirely ruled out. The same thing was felt after the original atomic and nuclear explosions: there were films, books, etc. on the ‘end of the world’ theme.
I know perfectly well that these lofty considerations are a million miles from the down-to-earth problems of many colleagues who have the additional worry of earning their livelihood when everything comes to a stop, and I wouldn’t like to appear insensitive. My son is head of an intensive care unit, so I am not immune to anxiety. But if there is one thing which completely differentiates the war and the present crisis, it is the time factor: World War II, apart from causing millions of casualties and untold destruction, lasted five and a half years. Even the pessimists don’t expect Covid-19 to last quite that long!